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Wildlife refuge learning program takes hands-on approach

Posted: August 2, 2014 - 9:45pm  |  Updated: August 2, 2014 - 10:15pm
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Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Kenai Wildlife Refuge Park Ranger Leah Eskelin points out a red-backed vole to the group of 15 in the Family Explorer Program, Saturday, August 2, 2014, on the Keen-Eye Nature Trail in Soldotna.
Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Kenai Wildlife Refuge Park Ranger Leah Eskelin points out a red-backed vole to the group of 15 in the Family Explorer Program, Saturday, August 2, 2014, on the Keen-Eye Nature Trail in Soldotna.

In the dense forest behind the Kenai Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, standing beside one of the 11 cabins erected by Andrew Berg, Hamilton Hunt helped Park Ranger Leah Eskelin read the data on a small black device she held in her hand. The two were able to determine that the partly cloudy day’s temperature was 63 degrees with 86 percent humidity, Saturday on the Keen-Eye Nature Trail.

The group of fifteen children and parents surrounding Eskelin and her assistant wrote the findings down in their handmade stick and rubber band nature journals.

The walk was the second to last of the refuge’s Family Explorer Program walks. Beginning in the lobby of the visitor’s center the quarter-mile stretch through sun-touched black spruce, with stops to check out Devil’s Club, lichen and a red-backed vole.

“You see it?” Eskelin asked pointing at the furry creature, sitting only meters from the trail. “It’s unusual for them to stay this close. This one I guess lives near the trail and has become slightly used to humans.”

Hunt and his two sisters clustered with the other younger walkers around Eskelin to seek out the tiny rodent among the thick layers of brush. His mother Stephanie Hunt stood in the back with their family friends Rob Carson and Rinna Carson.

Rinna Carson said the two families decided to wrangle their kids for the weekend program after seeing a listing on the refuge’s Facebook page.

Eskelin said the family programs are held at the refuge every summer. This year they decided to add a hands-on element to each activity.

The walks are catered for all ages, Eskelin said. From toddlers who can’t write yet, but are able to draw, to parents taking their kids out into the wild. She said it also works for all kinds of learners.

“Some people learn visually, some are kinesthetic,” Eskelin said. “It’s also just more fun to learn through hands on activities.”

Randy Lightfoot attended Saturday’s walk with his mother Kristi Lightfoot and his sister Taylor Lightfoot. He said he enjoys attending refuge activities because they take him into the wilderness.

The Lightfoots often take walks around the refuge together, and attend movie screenings at the visitor center. Randy Lightfoot said during the family explorer program he learned the names of several plants.

Kristi Lightfoot said she takes her two homeschooled children to the Refuge programs because it is another method she found that they enjoy learning.

Eskelin said the programs are never cancelled due to bad weather. She said some of the best walks she has been on this summer were during or right after rain.

The refuge has a set of 30 digital cameras used for teaching purposes, Eskelin said. A handful of the explorer programs used digital photography as a way of teaching about the area, she said.

Once after an early morning rain, with all the undergrowth covered in dewdrops, it made for beautiful photographs, and turned the walk into a lesson on how the forest uses rain to grow.

Eskelin said this summer the number of participants in the family programs vary from 7-33. Each activity is completely free and requires no preregistration.

The final Family Explorer program will be held Saturday, August 8 at 2 p.m. Randy Lightfoot said he will be sure to be there.

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